20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.John 17:20-21 (NRSV)
Fifteen years ago, my mother had a premonition that I would meet my future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: the World Gathering of Young Friends, a week-long gathering of young Quakers from around the globe; or an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”, which brought together young people from throughout the UK, from different Christian denominations, to talk about our differences and learn from one another in community.
At the same time, in a far away county, another mother had a very similar premonition: that her son would meet his future significant other at one of two religious events that summer: attending the Catholic World Youth Day as a very interested Anglican observer; or attending an ecumenical conference at Iona Abbey entitled “Breaking Down Dividing Walls in the 21st Century”.
As will be of no surprise to anyone who knows either of our mothers, it turns out they were both entirely right, and my future husband and I did indeed meet on that beautiful, far-flung Scottish island, and have been talking about our differences and learning from one another in community ever since. I had never been to Mass. He thought he knew all about silence as worship already. I stood firm in the interpretation of Quaker communities as a priesthood of all believers, and saw Catholics as bringing goddess-worship back into the Christian fold. He believed in the literal and perpetual virginity of Mary, and not in the ordination of women. It was, shall we say, a bumpy ride to learn to listen to one another with love, with respect, with acceptance without agreement. Now, in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I am trying to put into words some of what this process has taught me, some of what I would rather ignore, and some of what I can’t avoid, despite my firmest intentions, because every time I try, it beats me over the head and refuses to give up instead.
Unity takes practise. The order of our social engagements in that rosy, hazy summer struck me much, much later. Both of us arrived in Scotland fueled with the enthusiasm of months of talking about and experiencing our own faith with others – those with similar ways of practising that faith, and those with very different ways of doing it, who still broadly came under the same banner. We had spent time exploring what was significant to us and explaining it to others, across language barriers, cultural expectations, and experiential divides. Our tongues were already in the habit of finding new ways and new words for old and comfortable traditions. Not such a leap, then, to move on to rockier, scarier terrain with those who did not already share that mutual language and tradition.
Conviction without condemnation. In a world of post-truth, and convictions that are made or broken on the back of one throw-away tweet, it is a constant struggle to hold to your own convictions, speak them and share them with others, without inviting or offering condemnation. To be able to say “I think this, and you think that. We utterly disagree, and that’s OK.” To be able to learn from each other, to share cultural understanding and religious heritage, to be able to learn more about your own faith when exploring it through the eyes of others, seeing it for the first time: this is a gift, and a route into deeper understanding. Be warned when taking this route, though. There will be stumbles, false starts, and dead ends way up in the mountains that you find only after days of climbing. You will at times be surrounded by rocks and razor-sharp drops. You will bruise your wrists from swinging, alone and surprised when you thought someone else was securing your rope. You will hurt each other. Sometimes you will hate each other. And all of that is part of a journey to a summit that really is worth every year and belly-deep gasp for breath it took to get there.
Find your balance. Everything needs balance, structure, stability: from see-saws to ecosystems to marriages, they only work if they have both solid foundations and equal amounts of give and take. In my household, it’s all about balance. We have two cats: one is named Fry, as in Elizabeth, a prison reformer strong enough to be put onto a £5 note, and a Quaker; the other named Ambrose, after an equally impressive Saint, who had a habit of speaking truth to power, as well as being patron saint of domestic animals. We go to church one week, Quaker Meeting the next. We go away on church Pilgrimages and on Quaker residential events. The Paleontologist joins the choir; I join Area Meeting trustees. It’s all about balance. And also, maybe, just a bit about general absurdity and the triumph of hope over experience.
Be patient. Be very, very patient. Sometimes things will be very important to another denomination, and no matter how hard you try, it will be nothing more than minutiae to you. Exhibit A: arguing over how improper it is to put Jesus in the crib before Midnight Mass. Exhibit B: a stand-up row involving such jargon as Sufferings, Right Ordering, QPSW and AMs. (I feel like someone should put together a Venn diagram showing who may understand the significance of both those sentences. There’s a part of me that is very afraid the overlap may be rather lonely, though.) Whether you understand it or not; whether you agree with it or it makes your teeth scream on end; you need to dig deep, keep your cool, and, if you’re anything like us, leave the other one to it and go sort out some washing up.
Fifteen years has not been enough to work out how to do all this without hurting each other sometimes. A lifetime may not be enough. Life could have been easier for me if I’d met a nice young Quaker from a similar tradition; or for him if he’d married someone more naturally prepared for the role of Vicar’s Wife. I could have continued unswerving on a path I trod and loved when walking alone. He could have shared his vocation with someone who knows how to behave around bishops and doesn’t leave out some sections of the Creed. It could quite possibly have been easier. But it would have been infinitely less fun. Less like a blindfold rollercoaster with the car attached backwards by mistake. And in the end, it would have left me less aware of myself, and my faith more faltering, more superficial, and far less full of convincement.